Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Egypt, Serbia, Georgia:
Learning from Others' Mistakes
By Eric Walberg
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, March 8, 2011
Central to Egypt’s revolution was a tiny group of Serbian
activists Otpor (resistance), who adapted nonviolent tactics of in the late
1990s and successfully forced Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to resign
in 2000. Egyptian youth in the 6 April Youth Movement even adopted their
clenched fist symbol, bringing Otpor once again into world headlines and TV
It was the 2008 strike El-Mahalla El-Kubra to
protest high food prices and low wages that brought about this unforeseen
Serbian-Egyptian alliance. A group of tech-savvy young Cairenes decided to
start a Facebook group to organise solidarity actions around the country,
attracting a surprising 70,000 supporters. The results of the strike were
mixed, with police attacking strikers and killing two demonstrators, and
solidarity protests quickly dispersed.
Determined to build on
their networking success, writes Tina Rosenberg in Foreign Policy magazine,
Mohamed Adel, a 20-year-old blogger and 6 April activist, went to Belgrade
in 2009 and took a week-long course in the strategies of nonviolent
revolution with Otpor veterans, who had established the Center for Applied
Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in 2003 for just such activists.
He learned how to translate “Internetworking” into street protests, and
passed on his skills to others in the 6 April Youth Movement and Kefaya
The rest is history. A relatively peaceful
overthrow of the Egyptian regime has made Egyptian youth the darlings of the
world -- Egyptian-American scientist Faruq El-Baz even suggested they be
nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
revolutionary tactics made famous by Otpor and used to such remarkable
success by Egyptians are an outgrowth of soft power strategies developed
most famously by Mohandas Gandhi in the anticolonial struggle in the
1920-30s, and also by the US government during the Cold War to undermine the
socialist bloc; in both cases, where direct military action against the
enemy was not feasible.
Most directly relevant in the case of
Otpor is Reagan’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED, 1983), which was
instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe, funding all opposition groups left and right intent on undermining
the socialist regimes. Warren Christopher, president Bill Clinton’s first
secretary of state, argued, “By enlisting international and regional
institutions in the work, the US can leverage our own limited resources and
avoid the appearance of trying to dominate others.” NED’s first president,
Allen Weinstein, admitted that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly
25 years ago by the CIA.”
The socialist bloc collapsed just
as the Internet was taking off in the early 1990s. The tactics work well in
soft dictatorships which are open to Western penetration, and Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were
the vehicles for introducing them in East Europe and the Soviet Union, as
the degree of repression by the state had eased from the days of Cold War
The techniques involved continued to be honed
through the 1990s by Gene Sharp (From Dictatorship to Democracy, 1993)
dubbed oxymoronically “the Clausewitz of nonviolence”, and Robert Helvey, a
former US Army colonel and defense attachŽ at the US Embassy in Burma in the
1980s. Given economic stagnation (hardly unique to dictatorships), using a
combination of defiance and ridicule of an aging autocratic regime, and
seduction of a large, poorly paid, young army and police security apparatus,
the young revolutionaries are able to moblise mass support for change and
convince the security apparatus to step aside.
details are slightly different, a scenario similar to events in Cairo in
2011 took place throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-91.
In the latter case, Boris Yeltsin’s charisma pushing the military to his
side after the putsch in August 1991, bringing an end to Communist Party
The collapse of Yugoslavia was more traumatic. It
had also been blessed by a charismatic leader Josip Tito who had used his
monopoly on political power to build a prosperous, relatively open socialist
society. However, the pressures for disintegration built after its socialist
neighbours had collapsed. Financed by the US and Germany, power-hungry
ethnic leaders declared independence and civil war ensued, with the Serbian
heartland under Milosevic trying desperately to hold together what had been
a peaceful and popular union. By 1999, the writing was on the wall -- with
the West sanctioning, bombing and otherwise subverting the rump Yugoslavia,
a restless people turned against an aging dictator, with a media-savvy core
of activists the catalyst.
As did all opposition groups in
the former Yugoslavia, Otpor took money from NED, though it denied it at the
time, disillusioning many Otpor members who quit after helping to overthrow
Milosevic, “feeling betrayed” according to Rosenberg. CANVAS participates in
workshops financed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, the United Nations Development Program, and Freedom House, an
American group financed by NED.
The results of Otpor-inspired
revolutions have been mixed to say the least. Activists from Zimbabwe,
Burma, Belarus and Iran -- over 50 countries -- have taken CANVAS’s
training. The only attributable “successes” until Egypt were in Georgia
(2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) -- the so-called colour
revolutions, all of which have been a bitter disappointment, and along with
Serbia, clearly manipulated by the US to serve its geopolitical ends.
In the case of Georgia, a boyish 37-year-old Mikheil Saakashvili was
catapulted to power on the wave of a youth movement Kmara (Enough) modelled
on Otpor, winning the 2004 presidential elections with 97 per cent of the
vote. He invited in thousands of US and Israeli advisers, launched a
disastrous war in 2008 against Russia, and quickly assumed dictatorial
powers himself. Most of the Israelis scurried home after the war, and even
his US patron is balking at supporting his plans to take on Russia again.
The Georgian opposition has been trying to oust Saakashvili
ever since he launched war against Russia, but he is using his media smarts
(and beefed-up security forces) to hold on to power, slavishly sending
thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in hopes of earning enough
points to join NATO. A fractious opposition must unite around an equally
charismatic figure and future elections must be rigorously monitored if it
expects to oust him.
The rule-of-thumb is if you play your
cards extremely well, you may be allowed one Otpor-style revolution, so you
better make good use of it. A second one is hard to pull off, and if it
happens, as in 2010 in Kyrgyzstan, it is more a sign of political
dysfunction than something to cheer about. And Western-style electoral
democracy rarely leads to social justice, especially when the country in
question is central to US geopolitical schemes, as is the case with both
Serbia and Egypt.
The strategy worked well for small ethnic
groups wanting their own state, like the Estonians, Slovenians and other
eastern Europeans, ironically with the exception of Serbians, who
experienced severe economic hardship as a result of their “revolution” and
continue to resent the role of Europe and the US in their political affairs.
As Egyptians massed in Tahrir Square, on 5 February, 70,000 Serbs marched in
Belgrade protesting unemployment and poverty, charging that the government
(in typical democratic style, a razor-thin coalition majority) is pursuing
policies dictated by Europe. It is the NATO invasion and the loss of Kosovo
that Serbs remember with bitterness now, rather than the dictatorship of
Milosevic. Otpor tried to enter the political arena in 2003 but got only 1.6
per cent of the vote and gave up, joining the Serbian President Boris
Tadic’s centrist pro-Europe Democratic Party.
should keep the experience of Russia, Serbia and the colour revolutions in
mind as they navigate the perilous waters of US-style democracy.
Interestingly, Georgia's Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze is visiting Egypt
1-2 March to share his experience in post-revolution transition -- not with
the 6 April Youth Movement and the other revolutionaries, but with ex-Arab
League head Amr Moussa and Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, both
intimately connected with the Mubarak regime.
There is little
to cheer Egypt's idealistic revolutionaries in such confabs or in general in
the state of politics in Georgia or any of the other colour revolutions
today. It would be a tragedy if a few years down the line, Egyptians look
back wistfully at pre-revolutionary times, as do many Serbs, Georgians, east
Europeans and Russians.
Eric Walberg can be reached at